Lovely Miss Elvis: Delaine Le Bas

Lovely Miss Elvis

27 August 2009


The work of Delaine Le Bas has haunted me for some time now. It is vigorous and frenetic, urgent, direct and unapologetic. At times it is dark and disturbing, but then there are flashes of pure childish joy. These two qualities play together through her work like children toppling through emotions, joyous then suddenly nasty, jokes that go too far, games which end in tears.


Of course I was initially drawn to her use of textiles, but the work is so broad. Installations are frequently claustrophobic, crammed with kitsch, with clutter, a mesh of work, life, history and emotion. There is no separation between paint, objects, stitching and writing - it seems that all elements are a part of each other, every edge is blurred yet so many edges are jagged.


Gynaikonotides, 2008, The Fabric of Myth, Compton Verney


Gynaikonitides is a work that references Greek mythology. Roughly translated, it means 'women's quarters'. In the 5th or 6th century BC Greek homes were split into two and (naturally!) the men had the best quarters. This piece references the tale of Philomela. The tale is of course a tragedy, of heartbreaking loss of innocence, of violence and gruesome acts. Revenge is finally taken and tragically the life of a baby boy is lost. This installation is a narrow room, strewn with balloons and drawings, leading to a child's cot. Webs or strings hang from the ceiling, falling across your face making you want to push them away whist at the same time compelling you to move further in and look at the detail. This is claustrophobic, yet the strings are flimsy and weak, evoking threads of time and history, neglect and intrigue. What happened to the child in the cot, was the mother forced to an act of cruelty? Who by? Who to..? The birds are singing, some find it restful, others find it menacing.. what is their significance? In the tale of Philomela the characters were eventually turned to birds but were they ever free or were they forever tangled in the webs and strings of their behaviour? Childish balloons feel foreboding. Dolls are taped, restricted, trapped. Does this relate to the innocent life that was lost or do they refer to the child that was killed - an innocent child cruelly taken.


Gynaikonotides, 2008, The Fabric of Myth, Compton Verney


In the piece The House of the Juju Queen, I feel more claustrophobia, a recurrent theme in Le Bas’ work. The emblems and motifs here are childish, simplistic, often cheap and tacky ornaments, which bring to mind a person’s history from childhood to the tokens they (we) collect throughout and hold onto for the emotions we imbue them with. It has a bride as the central figure, masked and hidden as she purveys her reflection, which is the one thing missing from the cluttered setting. Is this speaking of sadness or of mystery? She sits like an innocent at an altar, faceless but for an animal mask, shrouding her humanity and making her….what? Shy? Brutish? Scarred? Mysterious? The Juju House was a West African house of superstition, a place full of entities, of witchcraft and magic. What I really love about this piece is the same mist of superstition and mystery yet the familiarity of the tokens and memento’s. Each doll, each ornament or scrap of fabric speaks of a whole history of a whole identity and generations of stories and experience.


The House of the Juju Queen, 2007/2008
courtesy Galerie Giti Nourbakhsch


Delaine Le Bas’ son Damian James writes of this piece: Le Bas recasts the sensationalist presentation of the ‘Juju house’ with reference to her Gypsy identity, taking objects invested by her people with emotive power and positioning them in circumstances that echo historical trauma. String lengths hanging like snakes-cum-cobwebs create a delicate claustrophobia, simultaneously enticing and warning of those who spin them, hidden out of sight. The stark and jerry-built shack of the shanty town tells fairy tales about real people: prisoners; adventurers; victims; aggressors; travellers; children.


The House of the Juju Queen, 2007/2008
courtesy Galerie Giti Nourbakhsch


The small mannequins that inhabit these spaces remind us of Alice in her Wonderland of sweet-yet-twisted imagery, and the freakishness of some children’s toys highlights the ambiguities of innocence. We are directed to the true horror that some children face everyday, living on the street, living as child soldiers.


The House of the Juju Queen, 2007/2008, installation view
courtesy Galerie Giti Nourbakhsch


Dolls in white dresses recount the pain behind the malice of Miss Havisham. In the ageless doll arrayed in wedding lace, Le Bas finds echoes of child prostitution in Victorian England, reminding us of Oscar Wilde’s observation that England is “the native land of the hypocrite”. (Damian James Le Bas)


Sun, Bun, Gun, Run, 2008
courtesy Galerie Giti Nourbakhsch


Childhood is a recurring theme - see the work Sun, Bun Gun, Run? above. I asked Delaine Le Bas of the significance of this and in her words...
Sun, Bun, Gun, Run ? On the streets isn’t this what is happening? For many children there is no ‘childhood’ and at the other extreme in the West it is seen that children are like ‘mini adults’. What is going on? Child slavery, poverty, labour, soldiers, prostitution, for all the so called advances in the world why is so much glossed over. All of that potential being crushed. I wouldn’t say that motherhood and marriage have influenced my work but they have made me question many things about the world we live in.


I love you, you love me?, 2008
courtesy Galerie Giti Nourbakhsch


Another important theme is the reference to the fact that Le Bas is a Roma Gypsy. Her work not only deals with the prejudice against the minority that is the Gypsy community and the sensational media headlines and campaigns against them, but also prejudice in the broadest sense.


refusing exclusion, exhibition view at Prague Biennal 3, May - Sept 2007
courtesy Galeria Sonia Rosso


Here Delaine talks about her background and the way this informs her work; As a child I lived in 2 worlds. I did go to school but it was never a priority of any kind and I spent great amounts of my time with extended family who were variety of characters and who all lived in interesting environments. From when I was at school I knew this was not the same as everyone else but I have always embraced this difference. I was never afraid to speak up about my family or how we lived (we’ve lived in trailers, chalets and houses). It was problematic when I wanted to go to art college . I hadn’t been to school much so my attendance record was appalling and they did not want to give me a place because of this but I argued my case. Also no one from my family, immediate or extended had been to college (I am the eldest of five and the only one to have finished any secondary school education). The idea of ‘losing you’ to the wider community was also heavy in the air so I was allowed to go but with very strict conditions. Which meant that while at college I was living two lives at once almost. I met Damian at college and became pregnant which for my family was not seen as being problematic as having children young is not seen as being a problem plus living in large family means that everyone helps out with caring which enabled me to continue at college easily.


l-r, Damian Le Bas, Delaine Le Bas and Damian James Le Bas, photographed by Tara Darby


There are definite roles within the community for men and women and it is hard as a woman to have a ‘career’ as such, so for that I am unusual. But I could not do anything else other than what I do. For me it is about creating the work, as for labels and boxes, tear it off and jump out of it. I was born what I am, I feel I have worked to be able to do what I do, which I love and I have many supportive people around me. The work is multi layered and tackles all of the issues not only myself and my own community deal with on a day to day basis but many other people everywhere. I feel my works deal with issues generally of ‘difference’ or being an ‘outsider’ in what ever form that takes and that it should be something to be celebrated. I also try and deal with the issues of the pressures that exist both from ‘inside’ and ‘outside’ a community when you make a decision to do something different. There can be prejudice everywhere even where people would like to think it does not exist. And Fairytales, read the original versions and they deal with the harsh realities of the world.


'lil bit of evil', 2006, mixed media
courtesy Galleria Sonia Rosso


I’ve always found sewing a particularly easy and transportable way of working. You can be working a really large piece of work but it packs down small and you can take it with you anywhere to work on it. The idea of it also being seen as ‘women’s work’ but how this can be used in a subversive way to communicate all sorts of messages. By it’s nature it naturally seems to draw people to it only then for them to be confronted by imagery and words that make them think about issues that they would not expect to see in something that maybe looks so ‘pretty’. Sewing is something that I can do at anytime, if the TV is on or even if I am in company. I work with different sorts of sewing machine and hand embroidery by it’s nature and the speed with which you can work machine embroidery can be aggressive but equally when I have cut or slashed works to hand sew them together is almost like stitching a wound which has all sorts of other connotations. Sewing is something I have always done, it’s just part of my own everyday experience. I feel I am in an extremely amazing position with the people that I work with in that they encourage me and have complete faith in trusting me with the works I produce. Paradise Found was my first solo at Sonia’s gallery. I sent a number of pieces to the gallery and also produced works while I was there. The space that I am working within is very important to the whole overall look of the show and so I almost have to immerse myself within the space as it takes form. The title came form the idea that The First Roma Pavilion, Paradise Lost, Venice Biennale 2007, was an amazing event for our community and it had been ‘Found’ and we were reclaiming our identity. It also relates to the idea of beauty in the ‘cast off’ and ‘found’ object.


Farewell My Lovely, 2008
courtesy Galerie Giti Nourbakhsch


About ‘Farewell My Lovely'; ‘Farewell My Lovely’ relates to two friends of ours called Zac and Reg who died in a boating accident. Zac had only recently before the accident had a ship tattoo, one of my dolls also has a panel on her back stitched about this ‘We Loved and Lost Them’. So the prettiness of the shells and the idea of the sea but also the power of it which as with most of nature is under-estimated greatly.


living together, MARCO, 2009 photograph
courtesy MARCO, Vigo, Espana. Enrique Tourino


On working with children; Mostly when I show work is when the most interesting conversations take place. Many adults say they find some of the figures especially disturbing where as the children seem to embrace them. I think this is because they have no ‘Fear’ to a certain point. So their honesty and openness is continually something to be learnt from. Their freedom with use of materials is amazing. In workshop situations the one re occurring theme is the so called ‘best artists’ in the groups get the least but every other child thrives with the freedom and they create the most amazing, imaginative and often thought provoking works. I feel this says a lot about how we educate children and that many more are being failed because of lack of self esteem and encouragement. (Delaine Le Bas)


living together, marco, 2009 photograph
courtesy MARCO, Vigo, Espana. Enrique Tourino


When I first saw Tara Darby's portraits, I was struck by their warmth. People often find Le Bas’ work hard and confrontational, yet these portraits were so full of softness and intimacy that I really felt I wanted to use them and find out more. So I contacted Tara Darby, the photographer and she so kindly allowed me to show them and also generously answered my questions. This clearly confirmed my instincts that she had such an evident connection with Delaine Le Bas and the photographs are a fantastic document of the warmth that Delaine Le Bas provokes from people.


living together, marco, 2009
photograph courtesy MARCO, Vigo, Espana. Enrique Tourino


So I asked Tara;
How did you come across Delaine le Bas? I was commissioned to document the making of "Room", Delaine's first solo show at the Transition Gallery by art director David James. He did not want to produce a conventional catalogue to accompany the show.


delaine le bas photographed by tara darby
photograph shown courtesy tara darby


Is she a friend or were you introduced? We were introduced. After meeting David and showing him my work I went to meet Cathy Lomax and Alex Michon at Transition. They also liked my work so they gave Delaine my number. We spoke on the phone and her and her husband Damien came over to my flat in Hackney for a cup of tea on a Sunday afternoon and left at midnight. We just clicked straight away.


delaine le bas photographed by tara darby
photograph shown courtesy tara darby


Were you already aware of her work? No

It is always fascinating (to me) to see photographers portraits of artists, can you explain what you hoped to present about Delaine in these photos? I wanted to capture as much of Delaine's spirit as possible- her inspirations, the way she works, the way she dresses. . I wanted the pictures to feel intimate, unstaged. . to be real. Because most of the pictures were shot like this I also wanted to shoot some formal portraits of her where I removed her from her environment. I wanted these pictures to be iconic, for the viewer to really be able to stop and stare at her face, to feel her intensity. My favourite portrait of her is the one that is on the back of "Room" which was exhibited at the National Portrait Gallery.


l-r, Damian Le Bas, Delaine Le Bas photographed by Tara Darby


Is there anything about Delaine that surprised you as you spent time with her? Mostly the volume of work that she produces from such a small room. Her working space is packed full of material, dolls, car boot treasures but she knows where everything is and is super organised.


delaine le bas photographed by tara darby
photograph shown courtesy tara darby


Can you tell me what you took away from the project and your time with Delaine? A bond, a friendship that will last forever. Delaine has been a huge inspiration to me, she is utterly unpretentious, completely her own person and a lot of fun. The project could not have worked if there was not an instant connection between us as I was living in her house on and off over a period of a few months. It was a collaboration in the purest sense of the word.


photograph by Tara Darby


Whilst trying to track down Delaine, I contacted Cathy Lomax of Transition Gallery. Not only is it a fantastic gallery with exciting new artists and projects, but Cathy was incredibly open and helpful. I’m so grateful to her and highly recommend that you spend some time looking through the website. You may be aware of their magazine, Garageland which is available to buy on their website and I one day hope to own a limited boxed edition of Room, including an original drawing and embroidery by Delaine Le Bas.


living together, marco, 2009
photograph courtesy MARCO, Vigo, Espana. Enrique Tourino


This piece is written with enormous thanks to the kindness and generosity of spirit from Delaine Le Bas, Tara Darby and Cathy Lomax.


delaine le bas photographed by tara darby
photograph shown courtesy tara darby


Galleria Sonia Rosso
Galerie Giti Nourbakhsch
Witch Hunt at Aspex 5th September - 1st November 2009
Preview with Performance by Delaine Le Bas and Mike Rogers Saturday 5th September 2 - 4pm
Artists Talk Saturday 10th October 2009 at 4pm

Damian James Le Bas - to see more of his writing please click here.
He also has work in Granule Summer 2009 edition available from Borders.

Delaine will be showing with Damian at Dvir Gallery in Tel Aviv in November. They have been curated for this show by Claire Fontaine.

The installation The Walls Can Be Invisible is still showing as part of Living Together (curated by Xabier Arakistain and Emma Dexter) at Museo De Arte Contemporanea De Vigo, Spain until late September.

Delaine is also included in the forthcoming book Sixty: Innovators Shaping Our Creative Future by Thames and Hudson (ISBN:9780500514924) available from October 2009.

image courtesy tara darby



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Open Frequency 2008: Delaine Le Bas

by Cathy Lomax


May 2008


Delaine Le Bas's magpie practice encompasses painting, sculpture, film, embroidery, installation and well just about everything else in a crazy mixed media bricolage. Her Romany background is apparent in every flourish and twist but is never a forced point, integrating effortlessly within the fabric of her installations.

Her work often has a very hard and sinister edge, unearthing uncomfortable truths and featuring troubling imagery. She uses cute fairy tale-ish motifs such as a skipping lamb and a sweet looking girl but these are then juxtaposed with monstrously over garish embroidered flowers, scrawled obscenities, sequinned skull and cross bones and a cornucopia of other images in a hellish hallucinatory landscape. Her installations are often positioned in small rooms or enclosed spaces and again the little girl appears this time manifested as a sinister child mannequin with a Union Jack hood conjuring up images of the dwarf murderer in Nicolas Roeg's film 'Don't Look Now'.

One of Delaine's most poignant series of works was her 'Rubbish Dolls'. These were made in 2005 when there was an ongoing NIMBY news story about Gypsies and The Sun famously led with the headline 'Meet Your Neighbours' and an image of a rubbish strewn caravan site. The Rubbish Dolls are assembled using cheap plastic doll faces around which is twisted a black bin liner to create a rudimentary body. In Delaine's show 'Room' at Transition Gallery in 2005 one of the dolls was fixed on to a small circular canvas featuring psychedelic flowers and a mock Tudor house while others were left scattered in the corner of the gallery, like any pile of rubbish.

Le Bas's work has an intrinsic honesty to it which is at odds with much current contemporary art practice. She has not invented a persona or cobbled together the real with the fictional. Her art is real life and much of her inspiration is from direct experience. This has often unfairly categorised her as an Outsider artist despite the fact that she attended art college and is very knowledgeable about contemporary art. 'All I can do is my work, to address all this bullshit about stereotypes. But I do have to address it.' She wrote in a correspondence with the artist Alex Michon in 2005, 'I'm painting, embroidering, drawing and going crazy with it. It's like a huge traffic jam in my head and I can't move it and work fast enough to clear it but I'm trying.' Her 2007 appearance in the first Romany pavilion at the Venice Biennale has led to wider recognition and although her background is very important her work is now being noticed in its own right.


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Delaine Le Bas in Wonderland

by Ben Cobb


Wonderland Magazine

February 10, 2008



2007 was a big year for Romani art. And for Delaine Le Bas. She was part of Venice Biennale’s first Roma Pavilion, which housed an international collection of Romani Gypsy work entitled Paradise Lost. Now with a solo show in Berlin, she tells Ben Cobb, “I just want to be seen as an artist.”


With its pebbled beach, 19th Century pier and Formica cafes, Worthing is a very English kind of seaside town. It may not sound the likeliest location for a rising star of Romani art but this is where artist Delaine Le Bas was born and lives with her husband Damian, an artist of Irish Traveller extraction, in a small end-of-terrace house. Looking at Le Bas’ magpie-like work – her intricate embroidery covered in badges, patches and sequins, and her installation pieces made up of dolls and ornaments – this quiet West Sussex spot, with its heavy quotient of charity shops and abundance of weekend car boot sales, is perhaps the ideal base.

“My work is a bricollage of disregarded objects and everyday materials,” 42-year-old Le Bas explains. “I’m constantly collecting. I’d like to think of myself as an archivist but I’m probably just a hoarder. There are massive storage problems at my house because I can never throw any of it out. Luckily my parents have some stables so I keep some stuff there and over at my Nan’s. That’s the advantage of having my family around me in Worthing.”

The family might be landowners now but it wasn’t long ago that some members were still living on the roadside. “As a child in the late 60s I remember visiting my relatives in trailers in the lay-bys,” says Le Bas. “We used to call the trailers zebras because they had chrome stripes on the side. Even right through the 70s it was relatively easy to stop in lay-bys. The main difference is that people are semi-settled now. If they’re not living in houses then they’re in mobile homes. There isn’t the amount of travelling that there was. Before I was small they were travelling all around for work but that work doesn’t exist anymore. For me that is what being a Gypsy was all about: having that freedom of spirit and not being tied down.”

It is this bygone era of Gypsies, rather than its modern incarnation, that has had the biggest impact on Le Bas’ art: “I have really strong memories of all the colours and patterns inside those zebra trailers and of my great Uncles who were big characters and completely wild, in particular Alfie who used to fight at fairgrounds for money. I put a modern twist on that older generation in some of my work.”

The drastic change in Romani life over the last 30 years, from a life-on-the-road to a more housebound existence, has meant that many younger Romanies, Le Bas included, feel forced to justify their credentials. “My background is quite a hard thing to explain to people because most people have a lot of preconceived ideas about Gypsies,” she believes. “The problem is that generally people hold two stereotypes at the same time. One is of the villain, the idea that Gypsies are always up to no good. The other is a really romanticised notion of barefooted women with floating black hair, running around a field banging a tambourine. If you don’t fit either of those stereotypes, which I definitely don’t, people aren’t sure who you are and if you are what you say you are.” Studying fashion and textiles at St. Martins from 1986-88 doesn’t help either. “If you go to college people think you can’t be a Gypsy because Gypsies are completely uneducated,” she shrugs. “It’s an odd position to be in.”

In fact, Romani roots go back to India; their language shares much with Hindustani. But with no written history, it’s not just outsiders who are short on accurate information. “I haven’t got a clue when my family first came over to England,” admits Le Bas. “They were obviously here for some time because there’s a cemetery in Hampshire where a lot of my family is buried. The graves go back to my great-great-grandparents.” What is clear is that wherever Romanies travelled, discrimination soon followed. Sadly that prejudice isn’t consigned to the distant past. “You’ve only got to go back to the 2005 election campaign,” sighs Le Bas. “There were whole pages in The Sun devoted to revoking the human rights of Gypsies and Travellers. When that was going on there was also that Channel 4 documentary, Kilroy and the Gypsies, where Robert Kilroy-Silk spent a week with a Romani community in Bedfordshire. The morning after that aired my parent’s yard, where they had lived for about 30 years, was sprayed with ‘Gypos get out!’ and swastikas.”

Certain pieces like Meet Your Neighbours, “which was taking The Sun’s headline during the Conservative campaign and turning it on its head”, confront the negative image of Gypsies but, Le Bas is quick to point out, that isn’t the whole story. “Looking at my art as a whole you wouldn’t say, ‘She must be a Gypsy.’ My work is a lot to do with other social and political issues. It’s about anyone who is on the outside, whatever his or her situation might be. I’m a strong believer that even though you come from a community you’re still an individual. I leave the boxes for everyone else. I just think of myself as an artist, whether that’s a contemporary artist, an outsider artist or a Gypsy artist.” With her 2008 diary booked up with non-Gypsy related shows until November, when she opens a solo exhibition at Galleria Sonia Rosso in Turin, curators obviously agree.




Outsider Dealing

by Sue Steward

The Guardian

29 Oct 2000



...the work of Damian and Delaine LeBas. Some artists...resent the label Outsider, but Damian LeBas, who comes from a line of tinker families based around Sheffield, has always felt like an outsider. The fact that both he and his wife went to art school - they studied fashion and textiles - would appear to disqualify them from the Outsider clan, but their art was never consistent with college rules. Today, Damian and Delaine who comes from a large south-coast Roma-gypsy family are the glamorous couple on the Outsider network, but their everyday life brings them abuse and insults for the way they look and live. Their home in Worthing is filled with gnomes and Elvis memorabilia, Damian's obsessive football collections and crazy paintings and Delaine's gypsy art and fabric collection.

Damian LeBas made waves during his time at the Royal College of Art, where he would draw the tattoos on builders' arms rather than classic designs on Greek ceramics during museum outings, and embroider denim jackets with sequinned abstract designs while other students created curtain fabrics. Drawing was an early escape route from a disturbed childhood, 'I started drawing football crowds when I was six,' he remembers. 'I was fascinated by the patterns and colours,' he says. Cats are a lifelong obsession. Some years ago, he produced dozens of cat paintings with acid-hell Catherine-wheel eyes, drawn with clashing bright pencils and oil pastels. 'I did about 10 a day,' he recalls, 'so many, I thought I was turning into a cat, because I'm so hairy. I got very paranoid.'

Delaine LeBas could have been many things in life - fashion model, designer, artist. Her startling beauty and highly personal dress style has some of the kitsch beauty of the fairground. An early work called Me and my husband shows Delaine in a yellow, rose-covered jacket and flouncing tiered skirt, and Damian in soul boy's baggies and braces. They are standing in front of a caravan window and framed by floral designs which look like embroidery. Her gypsy background informs everything she does. 'My mum and dad always dressed me in strange, bizarre things - two-tone shoes, coats covered in tapestry, fancy things. But I'm glad for it. I'm an eternal child. I never make plans or drawings, it is all spontaneous.'

Being an Outsider is not something Delaine considers relevant in her work. 'The art world is incredibly conservative. It's difficult for me to work in it because of what I am and where I come from, what I look like. I thought it was supposed to be about interesting people, fantastic things, but they ignore people like me.' For Delaine LeBas, the Outsider world is like family, just a collection of eccentric people ploughing their own route through life, and having fun on the way.


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